Can the latest American political hit squad decide Israel’s election?

Donald Trump’s critics loved the Lincoln Project, but it did little to assist Joe Biden while raking in cash for its founders. Nevertheless, Gideon Sa’ar is counting on it to help topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gideon Sa'ar gives a press conference outside the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, meeting at the protest tent of several Israeli hospital directors who are demanding equal budgeting from the ministry, Jan. 19, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Gideon Sa'ar gives a press conference outside the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, meeting at the protest tent of several Israeli hospital directors who are demanding equal budgeting from the ministry, Jan. 19, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The Lincoln Project was one of the biggest winners of the 2020 presidential election. That’s not because the group of former Republican “Never Trump” political consultants actually did much to help elect President Joe Biden. The group’s ad campaign made headlines and engendered adoring media coverage, though there’s no evidence that its efforts made any sort of a dent in its target audience: Republican voters. It not only made its founders a fortune, but it’s also using its high-profile reputation to market itself to new clients and has already landed one big account.

Former Likud cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party has hired the quartet of political hitmen—Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, Stuart Stevens and Reed Galen—that led the group to work on his efforts to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming March 23 election.

They are far from the first Americans that Israeli politicians have sought out to change their political fortunes.

The late Arthur Finkelstein, who was widely considered to be the master of the negative ad and one whose efforts turned “liberal” into a dirty word in dozens of successful GOP campaigns, was the man behind Netanyahu’s 1996 victory over Shimon Peres. Three years later, liberal consultants like James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stan Greenberg, who had helped Bill Clinton win the presidency, played a part in Ehud Barak’s defeat of Netanyahu.

Since then, American consultants have become commonplace in Israeli politics, although the imported gurus have been associated with as many, if not more, losing campaigns as they have winners.

Finkelstein couldn’t save Netanyahu from defeat in 1999 and Barak’s Democratic veterans couldn’t prevent him from being defeated for re-election in an epic 2001 landslide. More recently, Republican pollster John McLaughlin has aided recent Netanyahu victories. At the same time, Jeremy Bird—a veteran of President Barack Obama’s successful campaign—helped lead an effort that aimed to get out the vote to defeat Netanyahu in 2015 that not only failed miserably, but was also exposed for improperly using U.S. taxpayer dollars that were supposed to foster Middle East peace via grants from the Obama State Department.

The key to success is, after all, not so much having clever ads, but good candidates and positions on the issues that the voters like. That’s especially true in a country like Israel, where stricter limits are in place on campaign spending than in the United States.

Nevertheless, Sa’ar’s decision to make such a high-profile hire is one of a number of moves—along with bringing over to his party former top Netanyahu aide Zev Elkin and Benny Begin, the son of the late prime minister and Likud icon—that have, at least for the moment, helped elevate New Hope to second place in most polls and boosted the notion that he’s a credible alternative to Netanyahu.

Sa’ar is seen as a more tough-minded foe than the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz, who wound up being badly outmaneuvered by the prime minister. And since he’s always been regarded as a right-winger, it will be harder for Netanyahu’s loyalists to label him a leftist (which is political poison to a center-right Israeli electorate), though that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Sa’ar’s hope is to woo enough Likud voters to go along with disillusioned anti-Bibi centrists who previously backed Blue and White to somehow cobble together a coalition of smaller parties that will end Netanyahu’s record 12-year run as prime minister.

That remains to be seen. Still, having them parachute into Israeli politics has raised the hopes of the anti-Netanyahu crowd that believes their chances of taking out a prime minister weighed down by the problems of coping with the coronavirus pandemic and his legal troubles have never been better.

Some left-wing pundits have positively crowed about the possibility of the Americans trolling Netanyahu the way the Lincoln Project quartet needled the Trump clan. In particular, Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz columnist and author of a highly critical Netanyahu biography, has suggested that they concentrate on comparing the prime minister with former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The point would be to contrast Netanyahu’s affluence and ruthless political skills with Begin’s asceticism and courtly respect for the rule of law, and as the Lincoln Project claims about its anti-Trump efforts, get under the prime minister’s skin.

Before Schmidt, Wilson, Stevens and Galen are anointed as the saviors of the anti-Bibi cause, Israelis ought to look a little closer at their credentials, and what exactly they did and did not accomplish in 2020.

Biden’s victory validates the old cliché that victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is but an orphan. While the Lincoln Project’s hot shots claim that they helped defeat Trump, that boast has been widely debunked.

Their campaign scored a public-relations coup when it trolled Ivanka Trump with a Times Square billboard blaming her for the toll of deaths from the pandemic. And while that delighted Trump haters, it didn’t sway many votes in a New York metropolitan area in which Republicans are a small minority.

If the goal was to convince Republican voters to abandon Trump, then they failed. Exit polls showed that in 2020, 94 percent of GOP voters backed Trump—an increase over the 88 percent he received in 2016—showing that his conservative policies won over Republicans who didn’t trust him in his first run. Trump lost because of his poor performance among independents, and particularly among new Democratic voters, not because the Lincoln Project increased the relatively small number of “Never Trump” Republicans.

That’s a point that hasn’t escaped Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who labeled the Lincoln Project as a “scam.” The group raised a reported $67 million largely from Democratic donors, causing magazines like Jacobin to label them as “grifters.” Yet it didn’t deliver on its promises, especially since so much of its efforts were poured into red states like South Carolina, where the Democrats were badly beaten.

The main beneficiaries of the Lincoln Project’s extensive fundraising were its founders. Though few in the general public understand this, political consultants make most of their money from the commissions on the ad buys that they advise candidates to make. That means that as much as 15 percent of the money the group raised from Democrats to buy those ads likely went straight into their own pockets. While they didn’t actually do much to elect Biden, that feat did make them among the political world’s big winners of 2020.

Is Sa’ar wasting his money on the quartet? Their ads may help him, though if he does wind up toppling Netanyahu by one means or another it won’t be because his advertisements will be better than the prime minister’s (and over the years, Netanyahu’s had some good ones, like this from 2015 and another from 2019), but because enough of Israel’s voters will have tired of him.

In this case, as with all the other foreign consultants—true masterminds like Finkelstein and hacks like the Lincoln Project crew alike—the Knesset campaigns are reversing the trend by which Israelis receive financial aid from Americans. When it comes to elections, it’s the Americans who are fleecing the Israelis.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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